“I, in my old age, strive after that which I was hindered from learning in my youth… therefore I blush to-day and greatly dread to expose my ignorance, because I am not able to express myself briefly, with clear and well-arranged words, as the spirit desires and the mind and intellect point out.” – From The Confession of Saint Patrick.
He wasn’t joking, either: modern versions of Patrick’s Confession are frequently prefaced with complaints about the clunky and ungrammatical Latin with which the translators have had to work. Nonetheless, God called him to be a bishop and a missionary – raised him, in Patrick’s own words, like a stone from a deep mire – to confound the wise and learned.
Like the (much) later Saint John Vianney, Patrick had a strong and decisive vocation, but struggled to acquire the practical skills needed to fulfill it: unlike his companions in formation for the priesthood, Patrick had had his education interrupted at the age of fifteen by a six-year period of slavery in the hills of Ireland, and spent the rest of his life knowing that he could never really make up for what was lost in that time. Beneath the saccharine songs about his subsequent triumphant return to Ireland as a free man and a bishop lie several harder realities that Patrick does not try to gloss over:
– He was in his early twenties when, in a dream, he saw the pagan peoples of Ireland begging him to come and walk among them once more, but between this dream and its fulfillment lay over a decade of priestly and monastic formation in Gallia (modern France). Every day of those long years he must have ached to begin the work that God had given him, but understood that he wasn’t yet equal to the task set before him. If you ever feel as though your whole life is on hold, waiting for God to pick up the other end of the line and tell you when and where to go, this may be a comfort: one of the greatest missionaries who has ever lived was in exactly the same boat, hearing the voices of the Irish people calling to him across the sea and waiting to return to them. “Thanks be to God,” he writes as an old man, “that after very many years, the Lord has granted them their desire!”
– He experienced the same wrenching separation from his family as anyone whose loved ones don’t support their vocation. He thanks the Lord for “the great and salutary gift to know or love God, and to leave my country and my relations, although many gifts were offered to me with sorrow and tears. And I offended many of my seniors then against my will. But, guided by God, I yielded in no way to them, not to me, but to God be the glory, who conquered in me, and resisted them all.” The first time he left, he was snatched from them abruptly by slave traders, but the second time, he left of his own accord to follow a burning sense of vocation that they could neither perceive nor understand – and none escaped without pain.
– Even with a clear vocation, Patrick didn’t find the long separation from home and family easy. For decades afterward, “though I could have wished to leave (the Irish church), and had been ready and very desirous to go to Britannia, as if to my country and parents, and not that alone, but to go even to Gallia, to visit my brethren, and to see the face of my Lord’s saints; and God knows that I desired it greatly. But I am bound in the spirit, and he who witnesseth will account me guilty if I do it, and I fear to lose the labor which I have commenced, and not I, but the Lord Christ, who commanded me to come and be with them for the rest of my life.”
Patrick was a Saint who learned to wait for his calling from God to be fulfilled in its own time, to accept with true humility the shortcomings and failures that he experienced, and to cope day by day with loss and loneliness. On his Feast day, may we ask him to help us in our own struggles to come nearer to God.
“But I beseech those who believe in and fear God, whoever may condescend to look into or receive this writing, which Patrick, the ignorant sinner, has written in Ireland, that no one may ever say, if I have ever done or demonstrated anything, however little, that it was my ignorance. But do you judge, and let it be believed firmly, that it was the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die.”